Semana Santa on the Lake: Santiago Atitlán

The men’s traje of Santiago features rows and rows  of hand-embroidered birds. (photo: Victoria Stone)

The men’s traje of Santiago features rows and rows of hand-embroidered birds. (photo: Victoria Stone)

written by Ana Flinder

Those of you who have your place to stay in La Antigua Guatemala for Semana Santa are sure to enjoy what is known as the second-biggest and most spectacular Semana Santa celebration in the world. (Second only to Sevilla, Spain, so they say.) And you know who you are. Because they also say that if you didn’t book a hotel in La Antigua a few months in advance, there will be no rooms available — or you’d better find one now.

But for those of you who are considering other destinations for witnessing some of the best and most authentic of Guatemalan culture, consider a trip to Lake Atitlán. Oddly, Panajachel, one of the largest and most tourism-oriented towns on the lake, only had a tiny community procession when last we checked. Rather, it is one of the favorite vacation spots of Guatemalan families, as well as of young people from Guatemala City who want to party the week away.

Santiago Atitlán, across the lake, has a truly spectacular and authentic Semana Santa celebration, which is at times a breathtaking show of faith and sacrifice. Here you will see cultural traditions that have their roots in pre-conquest times and which have been evolving, blended with Catholicism, for centuries, while remaining deeply indigenous. 

Here in Santiago, one of the lake towns that has most thoroughly preserved its indigenous traditions, both Holy Wednesday and Good Friday offer spectacular processions. On Wednesday, Maximón’s procession goes from his house to his chapel in the churchyard. On Good Friday the venerated statue of Christ is taken down from his cross, put in a flower-decked coffin and, around mid-day, leaves the church, first to meet up with Maximón, then to begin the long procession all through the night. Easter Sunday is celebrated with a Mass in the church.

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